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How I Became a Feminist November 6, 2010

Posted by Jarrah H in feminism, LGBT, Politics.
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Reading some personal accounts of how people became feminists, including  “The Fire Inside Me” by a grade 6 girl on the F-Bomb blog, which I linked to earlier this week, made me realize I’ve never written here about how I became a feminist.

I never would’ve called myself a feminist before Grade 12, but I know I was conscious of women’s inequality long before that. My parents were both progressive but non-partisan and at election time they used to get my advice on how to vote. At age eight in the 1993 federal election in North Vancouver I looked over the pamphlets at the kitchen table and demanded that my parents vote for the Liberal, Mobina Jaffer, because she was the only woman on the ballot (sorry NDP, but I was only 8).

When I was 10 we moved to Denman Island. My classmates’ families in North Vancouver seemed to come out of cookie-cutters. Now, on the island, there were parents in open marriages, gay and lesbian parents, single parents, and the occasional nudist wiccan parents, but nobody seemed to care.  In Grade 6 we had a sex-ed presentation from the public health nurse, which included discussion of same-sex sex and oral sex. I knew dental dams weren’t just for dentists before I hit Junior High.

But leaving the island for Junior High made something change in me. I had already had my period from the time I was 9 and now I was one of the tallest kids in the class, although I dressed like a little kid in leggings, a sweater with snowflakes on it, and a headband with a bow. That, plus the part of me that made me an overachiever at school also made me a target. The bus ride from the ferry was the worst. Every day for two years some boys from another island would pelt me with food and pennies, calling me  a penny whore who’d sleep with any guy for a cent. This wasn’t the first time I’d been singled out, but it was the first times it’d been done in a sexualized way.

Not having even come close to holding hands with a guy, I was not only hurt, but also kind of confused. But I followed the advice of parents and teachers not to stand up for myself, because a reaction would just “give the bullies what they wanted”. I thought the only thing to do was to try and make myself cooler. I didn’t want to be smart or political or unique or vegetarian; I wanted to be liked.

Even though I never did manage to turn off the school overachiever thing, I spent a good portion of Junior and Senior High feeling like a fat loser who was destined to be alone for life. In a school full of rednecks I”m sure I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. A kid in my French class got beaten up for being Greek. One group of guys spent lunch hours in the cafeteria joking about starting a “Gay K.K.” to lynch LGBT students. For ages we couldn’t find a teacher willing to step out and sponsor a Gay-Straight Alliance Club, but we had an active Pro-Life Club.

Eventually I figured out that I was never going to be able to just be quiet and suck it up. I started speaking out in class. Then, in Grade 11 the BC Liberals swept to power and after they cut funding to women’s centres and made teachers an essential service, I decided to join the NDP.

Which brings us to Grade 12, when two things happened that really led to me calling myself a feminist. The first was that our school’s drama teacher decided to put on a community theatre production of The Laramie Project. I went to see it twice, both times crying through most of it but leaving with a renewed sense of purpose.  Seeing The Laramie Project made me realize how screwed up things were in the world at large, not just in my little world.

It also made me realize that it these conflicts weren’t just about actions – like closing women’s centres – they were also about ideology. I needed tools to fight back. That’s where an assignment by my amazing Grade 12 English teacher came in. Picking a philosopher to research I drew bell hooks out of a hat, so I went to the library and picked up a copy of Feminism is for Everybody.

bell hooks’ definition of feminism is: “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” By “oppression” she’s talking about multiple types, including homophobia and racism. hooks was clear: feminism isn’t about hating men or playing the victim; it’s a foundation from which to fight for equality. I had decided it was going to be my foundation.

Now it’s seven years later and my feminism has gone through shifts. More and more I’ve thought it’s important to include men in the feminist movement. I’ve also grappled with my own privilege as a straight, white able-bodied cis woman and tried to make sure I’m speaking with,  not speaking for others. I hope my feminism now is more nuanced, and there will continue to be changes, but I still believe in bell hooks’ fundamental definition.

Basically, if it weren’t for my parents, Denman Island, the Laramie Project, and my Grade 12 English teacher I wouldn’t be writing this blog today.





The Round-Up: Nov. 4, 2010 November 4, 2010

Posted by Jarrah H in Can-Con, feminism, LGBT.
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And just an update for those of you who wanted to know what happened with the Canadian Blog Awards. I’m pleased to announce that Gender Focus placed 5th in the category of Best Culture and Literature Blog, and 4th in the new category of Best Feminist Blog. Congratulations to the winners and thanks to those who voted!


Can Fraternities Change? October 28, 2010

Posted by Jarrah H in Can-Con, feminism, LGBT, racism.
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Fraternities have been in the news a lot recently, publicized for promoting sexist chants and racist parties. College and University campuses should be safe places for students, regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation, but some people feel frats inherently compromise campus safety. University of Victoria students recently upheld their campus ban on fraternities and sororities, with 63% of over 500 students voting against frats. Arguing against frats, organizer Jaraad Marani said they’re “counter productive to the university’s mandate and the University of Victoria Student Society’s mandate on creating inclusive and safe spaces.”

I went to school at UBC, which has fraternities and sororities. When a student club I belonged to wanted to hold an event in a frat house, I objected, arguing frat houses don’t constitute safe spaces for women. Historian Nicholas L. Syrett estimates that as many as 70 to 90 percent of reported campus rapes are committed by fraternity members. My argument didn’t get a lot of support in the club and I ended up sitting out the event, but the more I read the more I believe it’s no coincidence we’ve seen the following reports associated with frats (not even close to an exhaustive list):

1. In 1988 an 18-year-old freshman at Florida State University was gang-raped by three frat members who scrawled fraternity symbols on her thighs and left her unconscious in a hallway.

2. In 2001, an edition of Dartmouth’s Zeta Psi newsletter promised: “Next week: [Brother X’s] patented date raping techniques!”

3. In 2007 a Texas State University frat’s MLK party on Martin Luther King Jr. Day devolved into a celebration of racist stereotypes with “some fraternity members and others eating fried chicken, drinking malt liquor from bottles wrapped in brown paper bags and dressed in faux gang apparel.”

4. This September, two women reported being date raped in two weeks at a University of Minnesota frat house, with one 20-year-old woman being trapped in a bathroom by a male frat member. The following weekend a 19-year-old also reported being raped at a different U of M frat party.

5. Earlier this month Yale’s Delta Kappa Epsilon frat became infamous as videos went viral of frat members marching while chanting, “No Means Yes! Yes Means Anal!”

6. Two weeks ago a Harvard Sigma Chi “Conquistabros and Navajos” party drew criticism for romanticizing genocide of North American Aboriginal peoples, forcing an apology from the frat.

7. In March 2010 a 19-year-old University of Kentucky student was charged after wrapping a frat pledge in toilet paper and lighting him on fire.

8. The University of Alberta suspended one fraternity chapter this week after hazing allegations surfaced, with frat members accused of forcing pledges to eat their own vomit and confining them to plywood boxes.

9. This month the University of Kansas suspended a fraternity’s rights after allegations of hazing, including forcing pledges to wear women’s costumes such as “Fairy Godmother” in order to embarass them.

Fraternities have been plagued with these types of news stories because they tend to promote a vision of elitist hypermasculinity that has to be constantly proven through rituals that reinforce the exclusion of “others”, usually women, gay and trans men, and non-whites. Even though these are extreme cases, they’re just magnifications of the types of things that go on every day on North American campuses. I remember at UBC being told that one of the big Greek fundraisers for the year was a musical revue put on by the sororities and judged by the fraternities. “So we basically just fight to see who can come up with the sluttiest number,” a friend in one of the sororities told me.

At the University of Michigan, student groups complained about fraternity shirts picturing sperm racing toward an egg with the slogan “Only the Strong Survive” and banners with Playboy bunny logos on them. Syrett’s research also found homophobia ubiquitous in fraternity culture, despite a seemingly contradictory level of homoeroticism in many frat rituals.

But some people think fraternities can change to become safe and inclusive spaces. If society gains greater acceptance for racial, gender, and LGBT equality, will frats begin to mirror that acceptance? Amanda Hess has reported on frat boys at George Washington University taking steps to eliminate rituals associated with aggressive masculinity and eject members who spread homophobia and sexism.

I’m sure there are other fraternities attempting to take similar steps and I applaud them, but I’m skeptical about the possibility of meaningful change. Fraternities are, by nature, gender-segregated. To some extent, you can’t maintain that segregation without policing the masculinity of participants. Historically, fraternities have also been white organizations, and the continuing examples of racist frat parties shows fraternities are still having trouble shaking their legacy of racial exclusion. Why would they have any more luck with their gender issues?


The Round-Up: Oct. 12, 2010 October 12, 2010

Posted by Jarrah H in feminism, LGBT, Politics, Pop Culture.
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  • It’s Homelessness Action Week in Metro Vancouver and other communities in BC and the Yukon. Poverty is a feminist issue. Find events in your area here.
  • A couple great responses to Dan Savage’s It Gets Better campaign to raise awareness of homophobic bullying in the wake of a shocking number of suicides of LGBT youth: Kaitlin at EqualityKitten points out it’s not just homophobia, it’s also ageism. Garconniere at the Shameless Blog raises more concerns, although I’d hope that now that over 600 videos have been posted, that it would mean more diverse perspectives are represented. Overall I think the project comes with the right intent, and I don’t think it was intended to just tell youth to suck it up and not stand up to bullying. But encouraging LGBT youth by telling them it’ll maybe get better some day is only going to do so much. It would be nice if there was more onus placed on bullies to change their behaviour, and LGBT adults and allies of all ages have to work together to make sure it does get better and to challenge the societal views and institutions that allow homophobic bullying to proliferate. Some Universities and cities are already taking up the challenge but there’s a lot more work to be done.
  • Lisa at Questioning Transphobia points out that during this discussion on bullying we haven’t addressed the specificities of trans bullying, nor the continued discrimination of trans people later in life. Check out her article for some sobering stats (thanks for the link, Kaitlin!).
  • I love this article at the Ms. Blog: “Is Single-Sex Education the New Separate but Equal?”. I have a lot of concerns about sex segregated classrooms, mainly that they imply innate differences between boys and girls, which could reinforce gender stereotypes and make it even more difficult for children who are questioning their sexuality or gender identity to.
  • Check out the Female Character Flowchart at Overthinking It, which charts the main female archetypes in pop culture, from “The Wise Crone” (i.e. Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation) to “The Ugly One” (Meg from Family Guy) to “Psycho Pixie Dream Girl” (Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State.
  • Who says feminism can’t be funny? I’m loving the teasers for the new web series Vag Magazine, which follows a bunch of women who have just taken over a former fashion magazine and are converting it into a feminist publication.

What have you been reading this week?


FFFF: G.A.Y.S. (Guys Against You Serving) October 8, 2010

Posted by Jarrah H in FFFF, LGBT, Politics.
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Terrible Trends: Racing Women in Bikinis as Horses October 5, 2010

Posted by Jarrah H in feminism, LGBT, Pop Culture.
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Women "horse" racing at Hollywood Park

I’ve heard of women running races, women wearing bikinis, and women racing horses. But I’d never heard of racing women in bikinis as horses until the recent announcement by the horse club the Gold Coast Turf Club in Queensland that they’d hold a “women’s horse race” this December, with over 150 women competing for a prize of $5000. The Gold Coast Turf Club got the idea from the Hollywood Park racecourse, which has been putting on similar events for years.

This from OddityCentral.com:

Believe it or not, in a poll conducted by a local tourism website, just 27% percent of voter said they find his kind of event degrading for women, while the other 73% were perfectly alright with it. Even the members of Women in Racing, a Gold-Coast group that promotes racing, said they can think of better ways of marketing races, but they’ll back anything that has something to do with racing.

IIf women want to race in bikinis, great, but they shouldn’t have to remove most of their clothing and put themselves in a position where they’re likened to animals in order to gain recognition. The club admits the bikini race has nothing really to do with recognizing athleticism, with chief executive Grant Sheather saying: “”When people say ‘Gold Coast’ you think of beach, you think of girls and you think of bikinis; it’s a marketing ploy to build racing.”

It’s a particularly egregious example of the more general trend towards sexualizing women athletes in a way that most male athletes aren’t. “All I’m asking for is equal treatment,” Mary Jo Kane, Director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girl & Women in Sport, told the Newhouse News Service. “When Tiger Woods is on the cover of Sports Illustrated naked, holding a golf ball with the Nike swoosh in front of his genitals, I’ll be quiet.”

There are lots, lots more examples of how the media sexualizes female athletes in this YouTube video, starting at 2:26:

The Women’s Sports Foundation says that “the so-called ‘image problem’ [for female athletes] is really a code term for ‘homophobia'” and protests that “the function of the media is not to sell ‘heterosexism’ or ‘sexist images’ for that matter…The function of the media is to cover sports and athletes rather than assume their sexual preference.”

The homophobia and sexism  underlying the bikini horse races is compounded by using the women racers as replacement horses, dehumanizing them by comparing them to animals.

Women shouldn’t have to be treated like animals or sex objects in order to compete as athletes. Here’s to the day where as many spectators will show up to a race where women run on a track built for humans, wearing clothes designed for the occasion.


FFFF: Bryan Safi on Johnny Weir September 10, 2010

Posted by Jarrah H in feminism, FFFF, LGBT, Pop Culture.
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This is a little dated but still awesome. Check out The Current’s Bryan Safi as he takes on figure skating and the homophobic commentary surrounding Johnny Weir. Here’s your Friday Feminist Funny Film:


“Gay for a Day” Ok? August 3, 2010

Posted by Jarrah H in Can-Con, LGBT, Pop Culture.
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An astute reader directed me to the website for G-Fad, a local company whose “Gay for a Day” kits were being handed out at Vancouver Pride this past weekend.

The "Gay for a Day" Kit

Each kit contains:

  • A mini rainbow flag
  • A colourful whistle
  • Flashing LED sunglasses
  • Mardi Gras beads
  • And a T-Shirt emblazoned with “Gay for a Day” on the front.

Most of these things are unremarkable at Pride, but it’s the whole “Gay for a Day” idea that bothered the person who sent the info to me.

G-fad’s website states that the shirts are meant for “people with brothers or sisters who are gay…people with fathers or mothers who are gay…people with cousins, friends, neighbours and co-workers who are gay.”

Taking issue with the idea that straight people can choose to be gay for a day and the implication that sexual orientation is a choice, my reader asked, “What’s next?: lesbian for a long weekend?”

There’s certainly no evidence that G-fad is trying to make a statement about the fluidity of sexual identity. In fact, the “Gay for a Day” idea reads more like stereotyping and appropriation for marketing purposes. Straight people should be allies in the struggle for LGBTQ equality – at Pride and throughout the year – but “Gay for a Day” feels kind of like a white person dressing up “Mexican” for Halloween by wearing a sombrero and a fake moustache. Not only is it a stereotype (how do flashing sunglasses denote one’s gayness?) , but it’s highly convenient for the person taking on the identity. They don’t have to experience any real threat of discrimination or identity-based violence and when the Pride celebrations are over there’s no obligation to continue thinking about gay rights.

I should note, for those people worried a “Gay for a Day” shirt might make them seem too gay, listed disclaimer-like on the back is the following definition:


Function: adjective

1. a: bright and pleasant, promoting a feeling of cheer;

b: keenly alive and exuberant: having or inducing high spirits

2. Full of or showing bright-spirited merriment;

3. Brightly colored and showy;

I guess this is in case someone asks you about your shirt and you’re embarassed. Then I guess you can say, “No! I didn’t mean I’m gay-gay for a day. I just mean I’m brightly colored and showy. Can’t you tell by my mini rainbow flag of non-homosexual bright-spirited merriment?”

Doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. What do you think?


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The Round-Up: Pride Weekend Edition July 31, 2010

Posted by Jarrah H in feminism, LGBT, Politics.
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In case you’re looking for some cool stuff to read this Pride weekend, here’s your round-up:


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FFFF: Gay Pride July 30, 2010

Posted by Jarrah H in feminism, FFFF, LGBT, Pop Culture.
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So it’s Pride weekend and tragically I’ll be spending the whole thing on my couch recovering from surgery. So I’ll be celebrating by watching all the segments of “That’s Gay” on The Current. Thought I’d share the love, and by the love, I mean this awesome analysis of the lesbian kiss in pop culture. Happy Pride everyone!


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